Rethinking Transnationalism
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Rethinking Transnationalism

Ludger Pries, Ludger Pries

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Rethinking Transnationalism

Ludger Pries, Ludger Pries

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During the last two decades transnationalism has become an important conceptual approach and research programme. However, the term has steadily become vague and indistinct underlining the need for conceptual précising as well as more defined empirical research. Rethinking Transnationalism does this in two ways. On one hand it presents theoretical contributions to the transnationalism approach and, on the other hand, it offers empirical studies in the field of the transnationalization of organizations.

The book integrates outstanding international scholars of transnationalism and migration studies with specialists from a broad variety of disciplines that apply the transnationalism approach to different organizations such as NGOs, feminist networks, educational spaces and European Works Councils.

Presenting an overview of transnationalism and the surrounding debates, this interdisciplinary volume will be of interest to students and scholars of Politics, International Relations, Sociology, Anthropology, Educational Sciences, Migration and Geography.

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1 Transnational societal spaces

Which units of analysis, reference and measurement?

Ludger Pries

During the 1990s, pioneer research on transnational migration and on transnationalism in general, especially when confronted with sceptical criticism, frequently concentrated its efforts on proving the mere existence of transnational phenomena. Today, the transnationalism approach as a research programme has spread into such different disciplines as geography, sociology, political science, anthropology, economics, literature and history; moreover, the actual occurrence of transnational ‘social facts’ can be considered to be substantiated in many ways. Sometimes the terms transnational and transnationalism are used so vaguely and indistinctly that they are likely to become ‘catch-all and say nothing’ terms, as was the case with the globalisation concept. Therefore, conceptual precision and debate, as well as more explicit and closely defined empirical research, is needed. As underlined by a number of authors,1 the main task is currently no longer to show that transnational social phenomena exist, but rather, as most researchers in this field agree, to demonstrate that the successful establishment of transnationalism as a valuable concept has led to new theoretical and empirical challenges.
Many of the volumes—already more than twenty!—of the Routledge Research in Transnationalism series focus on analysing transnational social phenomena in areas such as migration, identities and citizenship. Other volumes concentrate on such different topics as transnational value chains and fashion, transnational feminist approaches in literature, transnational policy and security, or regional approaches to transnationalism in the European Union, the Islamic world, or Asia. Thus, the Routledge Research in Transnationalism series is a vivid example of the broad scope of disciplinary, thematic and regional traditions of the transnational studies field. However, whereas a fair amount of volumes concentrate on empirical research in specific themes, only a few volumes focus on conceptual, theoretical and methodological issues of transnationalism as a research programme.2 While many of the volumes represent specific approaches and traditions, this volume addresses both central current theoretical and methodological issues of the field as well as what has been, until now, a largely ignored aspect of transnationalism: transnational organisations. Thus, the specific ‘add on’ of this volume is twofold. The first four chapters represent more general readings in this field and make conceptual proposals for further research. In Chapters 5 to 8, the ‘meso-level’ of transnational organisations is treated as a specific approach to transnational research between the macro-view on general, institutional, and societal relations, and the microlevel of individual and everyday life social relations.
This chapter aims at integrating the contributions of the book by identifying the main advances and challenges of transnationalism as a research programme, as derived from the first part of each chapter, and by addressing the meso-level of transnational organisations, as treated in the second half of this volume. First, it identifies four main challenges of the transnational studies approach that result from a general reading of the transnationalism debate. In a second step, it concentrates on one of these pending problems: the appropriate definition of units of analysis and units of reference for transnational social phenomena and studies. It discusses different units of reference for analysing transnational phenomena and develops a proposal for conceptualising different ideal types of transnational social spaces. Then it looks at the following chapters of the book and underlines some important proposals made in order to cope with the aforementioned general challenges, especially in the field of transnational organisations. Finally, some conclusions will be drawn.

Challenges to transnationalism as a research programme

Taking into account the aforementioned and other transnationalism literature, a general common sense approach to important pending problems of transnationalism as a research programme can be agreed upon. Four primary challenges can be identified. First, instead of expanding the notion of transnationalism to a new catch-all concept, and of Viewing transnational relations in any corner’, it is necessary to define appropriate units of analysis for transnational societal phenomena. The simplest transnational societal unit of analysis could be a ‘transnational social relation’, like the communication and interchange between a migrant and his or her family abroad. But is there anything new about these types of transnational relations? They have existed for as long as nations, nation states and national societies have existed—and with these socially constructed units, social practices, such as interchanging and trading goods and information across socio-geographic units, emerged (see Khagram and Levitt in this volume). Therefore, transnational relations and transnational practices have existed since the very beginning of such social artefacts as nations, states and national societies.
In order to use the transnationalism concept in a more precise manner, transnational studies should focus not on transnational relations in general, but on transnational societal units as relatively dense and durable configurations of transnational social practices, symbols and artefacts (for this argument, see e.g. Hannerz 1996; Martínez 1998; Pries 2001 and 2004; Voigt-Graf 2004). To this end, it is necessary to explicitly define the specific relation between the (transnational) units of analysis, the (local, national, regional or global) units of reference and the (micro, meso or macro) units of research; these components characterise the transnational perspective and distinguish it from a global or simply comparative point of view. The following section of this chapter will deal with the problem of defining the appropriate units of analysis for transnational research or, sticking to the terminology used by Sanjeev Khagram and Peggy Levitt in this volume, will treat some aspects of methodological transnationalism.
A second task identified by the scholars of transnational studies refers to what Khagram and Levitt label as empirical transnationalism: the need to measure the real empirical extent of transnational social phenomena and especially of durable and dense transnational societal units. On the one hand, the multifaceted and ubiquitous existence of transnational social phenomena and relations is a direct result of building socio-geographic container units such as nations, states and societies—and, in this broader sense, transnational relations are recognised as commonplace in transnational studies. On the other hand, transnational social or societal spaces3 could also be conceptualised in a narrow sense. By this, they could be understood as nation states and national societies spanning interaction frameworks in the dimensions of (1) intensive and stable social practices, (2) systems of symbols, and (3) artefacts. Used in this more specific sense of transnational spaces, these could be considered as a relatively novel topic recently discussed since the last quarter of the twentieth century. The development of these transnational social spaces was pushed by innovative and cheap international communication technologies, such as the telephone, fax-machine, Internet and airplane transportation (as a mass medium rather than an elite mobility system).
But where exactly do different types of transnational social spaces actually exist? Does transnational migration make up a large proportion of all international migration? Are there a lot of transnational families as a result of transnational migration relations? Do transnational business companies play an important or at least a considerable role when compared with multinational, global or focal companies? The second half of this volume will concentrate on the conceptual and empirical aspects of transnational organisations—although it has to be stressed from the start that in general there is little knowledge about the real magnitude of transnational organisations and of the spread of transnational societal units in general. It therefore remains an important issue to measure, more precisely, the range of distribution and occurrence of such transnational societal units of analysis as compared to other societal units of analysis.4
A third challenge pointed out by transnationalism studies is to analyse the internal structures and processes of such transnational societal units as well as the interrelation between transnational and non-transnational types of societal units of analysis. This is crucial to avoid suggesting the existence of the same structures and processes in transnational societal units as in other societal units of analysis, or—the other way round—to ascribe structures and processes to transnational units completely different from non-transnational units. This leads to questions such as: What are the similarities between the internal structures (namely the distribution of assets, interests, values and power) and the dynamics (namely the mechanisms of coordination between the different and distant units of the transnational spaces) of transnational societal spaces as compared with other types of societal spaces? Are the dimensions and dynamics of social differentiation and integration the same in transnational social spaces as in other types of social spaces? For instance, do gender aspects of social differences or religion—as an integral aspect of social life—vary systematically in transnational societal units (transnational families, for example) as compared to their dynamics in national societies? As underlined by several scholars (Faist 2000 and in this volume; Koopmans and Statham 2001; Al-Ali 2002; Al-Ali and Koser 2002; Olwig 2003), there is a need to examine both agents and structures.
Apart of the lack of insights into transnational societal units, there is also little knowledge about the systematic relation between them and other types of societal units. How do transnational families influence locally bound families? Under what conditions are transnational migrant organisations a challenge and/or an opportunity for national social integration? Is the multitude and nature of transnational societal units influenced by local, national or regional fields of power? Under which circumstances does an assimilationist approach of nation states on migrants’ national society integration encourage or prevent the emergence of transnational migrant organisations? Until now, there has been little empirically based and systematic knowledge on these relations between transnational societal spaces and other types of societal spaces that could be interpreted as part of what Khagram and Levitt (in this volume) call ‘theoretical ‘transnationalism’ In the last part of this chapter some general considerations on this problem will be made.
As a fourth desideratum of current transnationalism studies, there still remains the need for developing an adequate methodology and satisfactory methods for transnational research. Scholars, such as George Marcus (1995), defined some excellent general rules for transnationalism studies, such as the famous ‘followings’ (follow the people, follow the thing/commodity chain, follow the metaphors, follow the plot/story/allegory, follow the life/biography, and follow the conflict). This is definitely an important step towards adequate methods, but, in the light of the aforementioned points, these rules do not resolve the problem of how to identify transnational societal units and how to distinguish them from simple transnational relations. The qualitative methods adopted primarily from the fields of anthropology, ethnography and sociology (holistic approach, participatory fieldwork, the ‘following-strategy’, open interviews, etc.), and developed by scholars such as Michael Kearney (1995 and with Carole Nagengast 1989), George Marcus (1995), Karen Olwig (2003), Federico Besserer 2004, Fernando Herrera (2001) and Peggy Levitt (2001b), represent important advances in tracing goods and people in order to identify and analyse transnational social relations. Levitt et al. (2003) argue for a dimensional focus on different aspects (economic, political, socio-cultural and religious dimensions) of transnational social life as a heuristic strategy.
In addition to these steps and in addition to taking the aforementioned first challenge—the definition of appropriate units of analysis for transnational societal phenomena—into account seriously, there arises a need for, not only new methods, but also a general development in methodology as such. In social sciences the units of analysis could be taken for granted for no reason, but always had to be constructed theoretically. Within the framework of methodological nationalism (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002), the corresponding spatial units of reference were traditionally considered as ‘naturally given’ by the local, national and global geographic level. Differentiating absolutist and relativist concepts of space (Pries 1999), however, leads to fundamental revisions of the relation between the units of analysis and the spatial units of reference—the latter cannot be taken for granted as coherent and contiguous geographical ‘containers’, but have to be considered as (potentially) pluri-local and constructed by social practices, symbols and artefacts: “The local, regional, national, and global are not automatic, taken-for-granted social arenas, but rather categories that must be investigated as constructed and contested social facts” (Khagram and Levitt 2005:26). In qualitative terms, this raises new methodological problems, because the units of analysis and the units of reference appear definitely as what they are (and always have been): inextricably entangled. Some aspects of this fourth challenge will be treated explicitly in the next section of this chapter.

Strengthening the conceptual fundament for transnational research

Based on the aforementioned challenges and desiderata of transnational studies, four proposals will be made in this section. First, differentiation criteria between units of analysis, units of reference and units of measurement will be proposed in order to make the characteristics of transnational studies, as opposed to cross-national comparison and world system or global studies, more distinct. Second, apart from the well-known problem of constructing appropriate units of analysis in social sciences, transnational studies must pay special attention to the challenge of finding the adequate (socio-spatial) units of reference. Third, the definition of a specific and narrowly bound concept of the terms ‘transnational’ and ‘transnationalism’ must be addressed to avoid using these terms as ‘catch-all categories’. Finally, the understanding of social or societal spaces has to be made more explicit so as not to replace traditional concepts such as ‘community’ or ‘society’ by another vague term.
One crucial problem in the social sciences in general is the search for an adequate definition of ‘units of analysis’. In transnationalism studies this problem becomes even more obvious and virulent because often used traditional concepts of ‘container units of analysis’ (like the national society or nation-state-based social classes) will not work. In this volume, there are some interesting reflections on this problem, and proposals for defining appropriate units of analysis are made. Khagram and Levitt discuss the problem of finding clear definitions of ‘borders’ or ‘boundaries’, which are required or presupposed in order to look at transnational phenomena and units of analysis that are crossing or transgressing these borders and boundaries. Nina Glick Schiller and Ayse Cağlar question the notion of ethnic groups as adequate and exclusive units of analysis for transnational studies. Instead, taking the example of religious groups analysed at city level they discuss individual migrants, networks, organisations and social fields (the latter as ‘networks of networks’) as possible units of analysis.
All the chapters of the first half of this volume stress the necessity to look for adequate units of analysis or units of reference for transnational studies. One possibility is to question units traditionally ‘taken for granted’ to relativise their boundaries, or to underscore their permeability. A second possibility—that will be developed in the following section—is to reflect upon the relations between units of analysis, units of reference and units of measurement more explicitly. This seems to be an essential endeavour in further developing the conceptual framework of the specific nature of transnational studies in a narrow sense. Transnational studies in a broader sense could be understood as all research focusing on border crossing and pluri-local objects of study. But in a programmatic way, the term ‘transnational studies’ will be developed here in a narrow and specific understanding of transnational societal spaces as units of reference. We define ‘units of analysis’ as the theoretical-analytical entities about which a scientific statement is made. In an investigation entitled The fragmented identities of rural-urban Mexican migrants in Mexico-City during the 1990s’, the fragmented identities would represent the units of analysis—whatever the operationalisation of the theoretical-analytical concept of fragmented identities would look like. In this example, the term ‘rural-urban Mexican migrants’ would indicate the units of measurement as those entities to which the data collection would be related. Finally, the expression ‘in Mexico-City during the 1990s’ would point to the spatial-temporal unit of reference that relates to the scientific statements.5
Differentiation between units of analysis, units of reference and units of measurement is useful for distinguishing systematically between different types of international research, namely international comparison, world system or global studies and transnational studies (see Table 1.1 with nonexhaustive examples for units of analysis and units of measurement). In the traditional case of international or cross-national comparison, the units of reference are the given or taken for granted nation states or national societies. The units of analysis could range from social classes to rituals, from social institutions to organizations, or from concepts of labour to religious orientations and practices. Ultimately, the units of measurement could be individuals, households, for-profit/non-profit organisations, movies, newspapers, certain products, special ceremonies (like weddings), and so on.

Whereas, in the case of cross-national comparison, the national societies are taken as the ‘quasi natural units of reference, in macro-regional, global or world system studies the unit of reference is extended so as to include a greater region (like Europe, the Asia-Pacific-rim or Latin America) or the world as a whole. In this case, the units of analysis could be the same as in the case of the cross-national comparison, now focusing, for instance, on a longitudinal perspective on changes in time. An example could be a study about ‘Shifts in courtly life in Medieval Europe from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century’ (given the fact that nation states and national societies in the modern sense did not exist at that time in the open-boundary macroregion of Europe). As an alternative to diachronic cuts through macroregions or the entire globe, with the same units of analysis as those used in cross-national studies, there is also the possibility of creating socio-spatial (configurations of) units of analysis, such as the centre-periphery figure, and combining these with the aforementioned units of analysis. The work of Immanuel Wallerstein (197...

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Citation styles for Rethinking Transnationalism
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2008). Rethinking Transnationalism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2008)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2008) 2008. Rethinking Transnationalism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
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[author missing] (2008) Rethinking Transnationalism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Rethinking Transnationalism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2008. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.